ODESNIK DRAGS TENNIS IN THE MUD

So another tennis star has found themselves on the front pages of newspapers linked to the now menacing black cloud hanging over the sport in recent years – “drugs.”

Richard Gasquet “snogging” cocaine in to his system, Agassi’s admittance of crystal meth use, Greg Rusedski’s positive testing for nandrolone, the two Belgians – Yanina Wickmayer and Xavier Malisse – and their dances with the anti-doping board about missed tests.

Recent years have seen tennis’ relatively clean image dragged further through the mud when it comes to naughty substances and they seem to have rivaled the ever-guilty world of athletics in cases rising to the surface.

American Wayne Odesnik’s case is slightly different of course. He hasn’t actually failed a doping test. Yet he was caught trying to smuggle human growth hormone (HGH) in to Australia and has been fined by their courts.

The world No. 111, 24 years of age, hasn’t actually been banned from playing but has now self-imposed a playing ban until his independent tribunal is held within the coming months. He is free to pick up his racquet at any time should he choose to.

Odesnik was halted by Australian customs on January 2 as he was arriving to compete in the Brisbane International and he was fined Aus$8,000 for his trouble. Eight vials holding around 6mg each of the banned substance were found in his belongings.

Wayne Odesnik

Wayne Odesnik

The Tennis Anti-Doping Program (TADP) possesses a whole host of powers for banning players coming up positive for taking substances, but has little to no powers against those found holding a substance. By taking a voluntary ban it might favor him in terms of punishment come his tribunal.

The one major question coming out of this is, as always, why? Why do players find it necessary to jeopardize their livelihood with the use of such substances? Is it desperation to succeed? To be remembered for more than being the world No. 111? He was world No. 77 this time last year, does he wish to stop the slide? Is it a drive for financial reward as your career draws on? A chance to make those later years even more comfortable?

Recreational drugs pose different answers. Perhaps an ego and a love of the “party hard” lifestyle. But doping always leaves brows furrowed. I suppose it’s easy for people like us outside of the sport to sit here and judge. “How could he? There are thousands of kids who’d love to be in his position…” blah blah blah.

We don’t know first-hand the pressures of playing top class tennis every other week. With a calendar stretching over the eleven-month boundary now perhaps players are finding it harder to keep up. It’s slightly easier on the body for the top 10 in the world who can afford to miss the ATP250s to recuperate as the points gained won’t harm them.

But for those chasing the pack just how long can their bodies go on as the sport becomes quicker and more physically demanding every year? You now have to serve harder, move about the court more often and produce tenacious shots one minute and powerful cross-court drives the next. The sport has even transformed in the fifteen years I have been following it.

This isn’t new of course. Looking back through recent history you can go back to 1999 to remember Czech star Petr Korda’s run-ins with the authorities over his use of nandrolone alongside sprinters and footballers the world over. Rusedski’s later positive testing in 2004 led to revelations of an unnamed 44 players having used the drug. How we’d love to know who they were.

The Men’s Tennis Council began testing in the 1980s and their early studies looked for use of recreational drugs. However over recent times performance enhancing substances have risen to the forefront of most scandals and this is perhaps the more saddening aspect.

You can perhaps forgive the likes of Hingis and Capriati, young protégés given little guidance over such important life lessons like growing up and maturing. Given the wrong influence by the wrong people they can easily fall in to the wrong lifestyle and their dalliances with drugs shows how easy it really is. The story is the same throughout every sport. Youngsters earning vast amounts of money and with no idea how to spend it.

Odesnik shows how these performance enhancing substances are still an issue and the punishments put in place by the anti-doping agencies are still not enough to deter players.

Would they think twice if a lifetime ban was threatened? Would more severe punishments really flush out the “bad eggs” and stop players turning to superficial help once and for all rather than coaches and training?

“For possession there’s a possible two-year ban,” said an ITF spokeswoman back in March. Is this enough?

American No. 1 Andy Roddick certainly didn’t think so. “There’s nothing worse than that,” he said back at the Sony Ericsson Open when the story first broke. “That’s just plain cheating, and they should throw him out of tennis. There’s just no room for it.”

But he certainly didn’t think the authorities were to blame: “We have the most stringent drug-testing policies in sports,” he said. “We’re up there with the Olympics. We can’t take Sudafed.” While the tests are in place perhaps the severe punishments are not.

And what of Odesnik’s coach, Argentina’s former top 10 player Guillermo Canas? He himself failed a doping test in 2005 and served a fifteen month ban. His silence coupled with Odesnik’s self-imposed ban speaks volumes of the guilt.

It really is a problem which tennis should not have to face but it does time and again. Until new, possibly more severe, sanctions are threatened it will continue to do so too.